Monster Calls, A (2016)

Review #1,355

Director:  J.A. Bayona
Cast:  Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Lewis MacDougall, Toby Kebbell
Plot:  A boy seeks the help of a tree monster to cope with his single mom's terminal illness.

Genre:  Drama / Fantasy
Awards:  -
Runtime:  108min
Rating:  PG for thematic content and some scary images
International Sales:  Lionsgate
Singapore Distributor:  Cathay-Keris Films

J.A. Bayona is a fantastic director, and in his third feature, A Monster Calls, he has made what I think is his best film yet.  The successes of his breakout horror hit The Orphanage (2007), and his follow-up, The Impossible (2012), the tsunami disaster drama with Naomi Watts, have proven that he is no one-trick pony, and with his latest, he has also proven to be incredibly adept and versatile in handling tone and visual storytelling, playing with and subverting genre conventions, while at the same time drawing affect in normally outlandish scenarios.

It is difficult to pigeonhole A Monster Calls into any genre, but what is certain is that it has a lot of warmth and heart.  It is a loose cross between Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and The Iron Giant (1999), but because of its imagination and vision, Bayona's film stands on its own as a remarkable, if somewhat under-the-radar offering that should be regarded as one of the year’s most emotionally satisfying works. 

A boy, tortured and bullied at school, lives with his sick mother diagnosed with a terminal illness.  Whenever the clock strikes 12:07, his imagination would bring him up close and personal with a seemingly menacing Ent-like talking tree, who would tell him harsh stories of injustice and personal loss. 

In the hands of Bayona, Patrick Ness’ screenplay (based on his novel of the same name) is given the most beautiful of treatments.  The director’s sense of visuals and how composition and camera movements can elevate the narrative are put to the fore.  The film also intercuts live-action with animation, and the seamless incorporation of the CG-talking tree (voiced by Liam Neeson) into the eclectic visual style make A Monster Calls a very arresting picture. 

But what triumphs all is the whirlwind of emotions that are handled with great sensitivity.  It is a sad film, but an infinitely life-affirming one as well.  A dying mother’s enduring love for her kid is all-powerful, but it is the kid who needs to heal by letting go.  Bayona's visual approach to capturing such ideas is both refreshing and reassuring.

A Monster Calls stars such accomplished actresses as Felicity Jones (who plays the boy's mother) and Sigourney Weaver (his grandmother), but the perfect casting of newcomer Lewis MacDougall as Conor gives us a splendid performance and character who embodies Man's infantile fear of acknowledging a loved one's mortality, but also the courage to believe in a shared and intimate immortality marked by an intertwining web of memories and imagination. 

Verdict:  One of the most emotional screen experiences you will find this year, J.A. Bayona’s imaginative third feature is an assured and affirming tale of love and letting go. 


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